Sunday, November 02, 2008

Heaven doesn't really exist

It's taken me 3 days to write this email - you'll see why below! Please note my disclaimer that I was brought in to help with this event just weeks ago as the main person fell ill...caveat in place, let's begin...
***
After my delightful lunch on the terrace we met with the hotel manager for a tour of the resort and to check out the venues that we will be using with our group.

I've never seen anything like this! The 3 hotels on the bay (again, this is the only development as far as the eye can see, for 100's of miles to the south, and the city is half an hour to the north) are stretched along a secluded beach. Of the 3 hotels, ours is the luxury 6 star one. Of the many amazing features, my favourite is a 200m exclusive + private stretch of sand reaching out to a large rock. Called Sunset Beach, guests can lounge on the dozen or so lounge chairs spread along the sand watching the sun go down, with water on both sides. Another favourite is the infinity pool. When you swim side to side and lift your arm for a breath, all you can see is water, which drops off the edge to the cliff below, so that you see nothing but water meeting water....

We are shown the dinner spot for our opening night with the Minister of Oil + Gas - a grassy tip of the far peninsula, with billowing linens covering tables set under palm trees. When night falls, the cliff wall is lit with coloured lights and a traditional feast laid out. It is breath-taking and I can hardly wait!

!*!*Reality Check!*!*

After my lunch and tour, I was shaken into reality. Apparently I'm not an Arabian princess, but here to work! 5:00 pm until 2:30 in the morning involved a laptop, slow internet connection, a business centre that closed earlier than the 24 hour a day service we were led to expect, and a dinner of almonds and diet coke out of the (complimentary at least) mini bar. The sounds of the waves, the singers from the lounge, and the chimes of laughter from the beach drowned out by the clicking of the keyboard....the program needs updating from all of the changes we've made over the last week. We've been told that its a cultural thing, that people don't confirm appointments or information until the last possible moment. It's nerve-wracking, but we think we're ready to go.

***

Unfortunately I went to bed before the fat lady sang. From my vantage point it was hard to tell the girth of whoever was wailing possibly ancient traditional camel-mating sounds from the lounge patio adjacent my window.

It's Hallowe'en when I wake up after a diet cola induced fitful sleep dreaming of planes, papers, and delegates, but my costume is ready to go! I dress as a rumpled, tired, + foreign event planner with a look of desperation around her eyes. I carry off the look convincingly well and the same lady who stayed 2 hours late for us last night in the business centre works with us as we try to decipher why the emails we send her with more materials to print are evaporating in the heat. The machine with the adjustable hole-punch settings is stuck on 4 holes which means that my notes look like snowflakes and none of the papers can be inserted into the binder. We've brought A4 paper stock as is the size here, but the templates from our printer, which were supposed to match, don't. The colour printing comes out so badly I'm not sure if someone's slipped LSD into my coffee or if its my eyes unable to focus.... The scent of incense is making me crazy and the air conditioning on so high I actually fear I might catch pnumonia.

In a moment of genius, I'd invited the guests who are arriving early to join us tonight for a casual BBQ and drinks at the beach bar before our formal program starts the next day. At 3:30 from the business centre, I vow never to come up any nice ideas like that ever again. The extension number we've given people to call to RSVP for the BBQ is very convenient unless you actually expect anyone to answer the ringing line. If someone does, they ask to take a message so that they can call you back. At which point I think they crumple up the little message papers and toss them into the incense burners.

The participant kits are delivered to the rooms, but very (in)conveniently placed in bottoms of desk drawers making it hard for guests to know they are there. Hysterically, I wonder at one point if this is some kind of Hallowe'en/Easter fusion celebration where you have to scramble around your room finding hidden things you didn't know you were supposed to look for, buried deep within the furniture.

***

It's 4:30 and I walk out to the pool deck. The sun is setting but I catch the last few rays as I slide into the water. Someone at the front desk in a stroke of brilliance has been asking the guests as they check in, if they'd like to join us for dinner. 15 have said yes, the reservation is in place, and I feel like a princess once again....

***

Our BBQ is set up down a path lit with candles, just above Sunset beach in a private area down from the hotel. Palm trees and lanterns sway in the warm evening air. I'm handed a cocktail and there are jumbo prawns on the outdoor grill. The guests arrive, tired but relaxed, and the dinner begins...

(A lovely evening all in all, and I consider myself lucky to be in the company of 6 people who all, amazingly and coincidentally, retrospectively predicted the financial crisis. Much of the evening is spent with them congratulating each other on their brilliance! : )

***

6 am wake-up call and our first day begins with an optional cultural tour of the Grand Mosque, local museum, and shops. Our advance guides had told us women could enter the mosque as long as our skirts/pants were below the knee and we were wearing a head scarf. Not so, and my calf-length capris are not enough to hide my sexy ankles from Allah. I understand that Allah is trying to tell me I need to nap on the bus instead for the next hour. I gratefully take his advice.

Our charming and relatively uneventful day (well sure, there's always someone lost in the market and late for the bus) includes some narration on Muscat. 30 years ago they had no phones, roads, water, electricity..... Incredible how far they've come under their Sultan. A modern fellow who has graciously also allowed women the right to drive. (Perhaps he'd change his mind on that if I were to take him for a spin?!?)

The day, however, takes a turn for the worse as we arrive back at the hotel. Our local partner, who is the host and organizer of our opening dinner starting in 2.5 hours, has left us a note. Shocking, really, to have any communication from them at all, given that they've been more elusive than David Copperfield over the past weeks and months.

The Minister of Oil + Gas has cancelled, they've subsequently cancelled the dinner on the peninsula, and if we'd like to give them a call, here are 8 phone numbers. (If you can accurately guess how many of the 8 phone numbers actually work I'll give you a dollar.) The hotel says no, they can't rebook us in to at least eat, with or without a speaker, as they've sent all the staff home. As I'm thumbing through the yellow pages trying to ascertain if Panagopolous will at least deliver (turns out they would), the phone rings!

Another Minister, of Heritage and Culture, has invited our delegation to join him and Her Excellency I Don't Understand The Name Over The Phone But Its This Long at an event they are hosting at the Grand Hyatt. They are very vague about the purpose of the evening, but given that they've cancelled our dinner and are insisting we attend, our work is now cut out for us. We find a bus, call back the photographer, track down 32 delegates who are spread over acres of hotel, change the departure time, and alter everyone's dress code. People are obviously disappointed but a sense of excitement and mystery settles over the bus. One of our dignitaries laughs and says "Welcome to the Middle East".

After an hour or traveling back through the city, the sense of excitement and mystery has been replaced by heat and hunger. However the Grand Hyatt looms large in white marble, and is enticing with its sparklingly lit pillars and porticos and a mile long line of Mercedes in the turnabout.

Its no small wonder that we've arrived on time and the event organizer expresses her wonder as well, in that nothing ever starts on time in the Middle East. A grand but entirely vacant reception area and ballroom are decorated to the hilt and we are invited to wait for the other of the 150 guests to arrive. Wait and have a drink to start. A non-alcoholic drink. Oh no.....

It is a Muslim country but the international hotels do serve alcohol. Just not, it appears when there are local VIP's in attendance. Notwithstanding the irony that no-one's actually in attendance except us, VIP or otherwise, we won't be served cocktails here! A dash through the dishdashas (long white robes that the men wear) on the mezzanine level upstairs finally reveals a small bar with a terrace patio over looking the ocean. And wine! With a lovely server who immediately sets to arranging glasses. I dash back down the stairs as the guests are just entering the reception area and whisk them up to liquid 13.8%.

No sooner have they started sipping, but the event organizer is calling for us to come back down as the VIP's are arriving. I actually consider telling the delegates to chug their wine as it's the only alcohol they're going to get, but decide I just can't stoop to that level. They're smart people and many figure that out on their own. A flurry of activity and the guests are down the stairs and then moved from our original tables behind a wall of pillars to better seating. Mike Harris and some of our other high-profile delegates are moved to seats of honour. Fabulous.
And then, the fun truly begins.

The reality of what we've been invited to starts to sink in. It's a fundraising dinner for a local Children's Library. As sweet as the event is, I'm not sure that many of us would have traveled halfway across the planet through 27 time zones at a ridiculous cost, in the interests of learning more about economic policy formation in the region, to attend this. It takes a moment longer for our guests to understand what's going on, what with all of the presentations being in Arabic. Unfortunately the gift of a children's book on ants at each place setting doesn't take long to read and soon everyone is restless and getting hungry. But for a few wedges of pita, there's no food in sight....

Our partners and "hosts" for this event have conveniently disappeared which is probably a good thing as I'm not sure what kind of sentence a charge of asphyxiation with a dishdasha would get me in Oman. At 9:30pm with the first course only starting to arrive, some of our delegation is heading for the exit in search of a taxi back to our hotel. Some plates arrive as we are leaving and I wonder if anyone else is considering tucking a chop in their pocket for the trip back on the bus.

We arrive back at the Resort to a graceful setting of sparkling and crisp Moet Brut with some elegant tables of food set up on the terrace near the pool. Having promised our guide my hand in marriage (probably as wife #3 if I think that through) if he can actually pull this off while we're en route from the Hyatt, I now throw in some cash and a kiss on the cheek.

Our guests visibly relax but don't stay long as its now 10:30 pm and they're due in the lobby, packed and checked out, by 6:30 am the next day. They start to wander back to their rooms through the peaceful garden until....

SPLASH! One of our senior dignitaries trips and falls into the pool.

Sigh.

I don't think there's enough champagne here to help me now...

***

2 am and we've got the details for the next day sorted out and our plan's in place. I return to my room and call for a 5 am wake-up call. All I've eaten since lunch is a raspberry off of the dessert tray but even the usual assortment of almonds from the mini bar doesn't really appeal. I reach to unplug my computer from the hotel's converter when....

Sparks and a small fire erupts from the end of the plug and my fingertips are now on fire. The jolt has sent me dancing and I would look for my phrase book to translate F*!K into Arabic but I can't see a thing. The surge has caused all of the electricity in my room to turn off and now its pitch black, and I'm hopping naked around the room with my blistering finger in my mouth.
I could care less about the blackness, but now that I've knocked out the phones, I'm mostly worried about my wake up call not getting through.

I grope around for my robe and finally find the door. I'm certain that if capri pants are unsuitable for the local religion, a bathrobe is my ticket to hell. Under different circumstances I might find this disconcerting were I not sure I'm not already there.

The front lobby is a good mile from my room and I furtively skip along the corridors hoping desperately not to run into a delegate. I am also hoping desperately to find a house phone but no such luck.

The reception staff, averting their eyes from my gasping chest and smoking hand, gracefully suggest another room while they try to fix my electricity, so that I can see well enough to pack and blow dry my hair in 3 short hours.

I fall into (some other bed), hoping that they've managed to reroute the wake-up call.

Day 1? Completed. Six more to go....

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